Turning Against Oneself: The Internalization of the Subject and the Critique of Culture

My doctoral dissertation focuses on the declining optimism regarding the emancipatory potential of politics within the tradition of cultural critique. In order to examine this transformation, I investigate the relationship between subjectivity, or the modern conception of the person, and internalization, whereby people discipline themselves given modern practices and beliefs, in the work of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, and Foucault. Typically, these authors are often posed against one another, but by reading them together we gain a richer understanding of internalization and a deeper understanding of how it affects subjectivity. Though each of these thinkers articulates this process through a different mode, their combined insights into the ways our subjectivities are mediated by the things we unknowingly internalize yield important insights into modern social questions like mass incarceration and coloniality, as well as for theoretical interventions into personal autonomy and political resistance today.

Widely read as critics of the culture of their time, each one of these thinkers articulates in different ways that the mechanism or underlying logic whereby civilization comes to fruition is also the same logic that leads to its demise. Rousseau’s First Discourse and later autobiographical writings highlight his argument that representative government and luxury lead to the cultivation of an unhealthy amour-propre, which distracts one from healthy self-love and the ability to fully realize their freedom through the general will. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals contends that confining people within the walls of a ‘political state’ necessitates repression of active drives, leading to their sublimation and finally a ‘sick’ culture of self-denial and mediocrity. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that modern society is shot through with the dominating systematicity of Enlightenment rationalism, most notably instantiated in capitalism. In addition to being alienated from our work and reduced to our material productivity, ‘culture’ becomes yet another capitalistic industry which crowds out any room for authenticity or originality. Finally, Foucault’s conception of biopower is an articulation of the way in which society normalizes its members through its institutions and discourses. In each of these accounts, the emergence of subjectivity is co-extensive with the internalization of some ultimately self-denying custom or belief, be it Christianity (Nietzsche) or late capitalist ideology (Adorno and Horkheimer).

Within these four critiques, however, I look to the changing role of politics and its relationship to salvation from the ills of society. What results is a complete reversal in the emancipatory capacity of politics: for Rousseau, politics in the Social Contract is meant to mitigate and ameliorate the ills of society. In Nietzsche, however, the promise of politics becomes much more ambiguous, given the experimental nature of his ‘philosophers of the future.’ The Frankfurt School offers an apolitical hope for emancipation from the ills of society: namely, retreating into abstract art as the last refuge of political resistance. Finally, Foucault articulates how power operates through language, knowledge and social practices and on these grounds outlines a specifically anti-political protest within these power structures themselves.

Given these four thinkers’ critiques of culture, three intertwined historical themes arise which occur simultaneously. First, from Rousseau to Foucault there is a decline in optimism with respect to the possibility of politics being a vehicle of liberation. Second, there is a diminishing perceived possibility for originality or authenticity on the part of the individual vis-à-vis society from Rousseau to Foucault. Third, there is a deepening articulation of the mechanism by which people are dominated, also beginning in Rousseau and culminating in Foucault’s bio-politics. By bringing out how each author articulates these themes in terms of how we lose sight of what we internalize, my dissertation seeks not only to connect these thinkers in a way that other interlocutors have not before, but also to reestablish the centrality of this concept in modern political theorizing.